Hydroponic gardening might sound like something straight out of a sci-fi movie, complex or intimidating, but that’s not the case if you keep it simple.
Like most things, there’s a learning curve and some trial and error.
But the rewards are many—and well worth it.
Let me step back and explain what hydroponic gardening is first since I’m getting ahead of myself.
When we think of gardening what usually comes to mind is dirt, being down on our knees and among the plants we’ve nurtured. And don’t forget the weeds, pests, and wildlife that also want a piece of the harvest.
But there are other ways to garden, and hydroponics is a really cool option that can involve lots of technology, a little or none at all. As a geek I like some technology, but I am also experimenting with dead simple passive systems that grow things a little slower, but are still very productive, interesting & rewarding.
What hydroponic gardening boils down to is growing plants in nutrient-rich water without soil.
It can take on a variety of forms and systems, but in the end, instead of using nutrients within soil to get the plants what they need to thrive, the nutrients are in the water, and different growing mediums are used for plant support, aeration and drainage in place of the dirt.
Some of the benefits of growing hydroponically are:
- More precise control over nutrients, which can be used to speed up how long it takes till harvest time by using a more concentrated nutrient mix
- Fewer pests, since they usually live in the soil
- No weeding, since they usually come from the soil, which hydroponics doesn’t use
- Cleaner, since no dirt (are you noticing a theme here?). This is also nice since you can bring some of your garden indoors cleanly
- Much lower water usage since most systems recirculate the nutrient solution
- No fertilizers leached into groundwater
- No daily watering (this is a biggie for me since I was turned off by gardening for a while after a string of plant-killings because I forgot to water them). There’s a little more work up front, and in return, the system handles the watering. In exchange, we check the pH and water levels every week or so and adjust, if needed. I still try to check on my plants daily, I mainly observe and troubleshoot with no watering can in sight.
- Delicious and nutritious super duper hyper-local vegetables, herbs and berries
- Ability to grow out-of-season (since we’re not planting in the ground where frost kills plants), sometimes with the assistance of grow lights or cold-frames
- Supplementing your grocery shopping with what you’ve grown, which saves money and lots of CO2 in the atmosphere (that comes with transporting produce far and wide)
- Feeling fantastic growing and eating what you produced
- You’ll probably grow too much and have lots to give your friends and family, which will make you closer to them and very popular during harvest times
There are tons more benefits that I won’t list. Just a few to get you thinking and as excited about hydroponics as I am.
Sidenote: Supposedly the Roman emperor used a method of what sounds like hydroponics to grow cucumbers out-of-season during the first century because his doctor told him to eat one cucumber a day for his health (I guess back then it was “A cucumber a day keeps the doctor away”).
My hydroponic gardening journey
My affair with hydroponics started about two decades ago but didn’t turn into an actual hydroponics system till recently. I wish I started earlier since it gives me so much satisfaction and joy, but I’m mostly glad I made the time and put in the effort to start when I did.
I read a ton on the subject and it sounded like the perfect way to grow things that fit my personality and interests, but for many reasons I didn’t dive in then.
Due to the pandemic, I had more time on my hands and was seeing all these other people on social media grow things and I finally decided to build a system after a refresher (aka tons of reading and some YouTubing) and discovering what new techniques and options were available.
After considering the different systems and finally ruling out some of the more advanced systems that seemed really cool, but were more prone to failure, more expensive and more complex I decided on a simple Deep Water Culture (DWC) system.
Deep Water Culture might sound fancy, but all mine amounts to is a:
- Plastic storage tote – 17 gallon, but my next one will be a lot shallower—oops—to cut down on the amount of water, weight, and nutrients needed. More water is good as a buffer, but too much is overkill. I paid about $10 at Home Depot for mine
- Pond pump with Venturi valve – 400 GPH, I got a bigger one than I needed now since I’m planning to expand the system in the near future
- 2” net cups – I got about 15 locally for around $0.20 apiece, I’ve recently purchased more since I’ve started growing lots of herbs passively using a different method
- 1.5″ Rockwool cubes – I recently started cutting my cubes into quarters to cut down on resources and costs, while using more expanded clay pebbles to support the cubes in the net cups, and you’d be wise to do the same
- Expanded clay pebbles – I got a 25 Lb. bag, which was way too much and 2 Lbs. should be plenty to start you off
- 3-part hydroponic nutrient solution
- pH Up & Down and test
All-in it was about $135 to set up (I purchased all my supplies locally, where the pricing and availability was better at the time compared to Amazon, but I included links above so you know what I got). Nearly half of that cost was the nutrient solution—that will probably last over a year—and the enormous bag of clay pebbles (I haven’t used 5% of the 25Lb. bag and it’s reusable, so it’s going to last for years and years to come, but I recommend a much smaller bag). If you don’t already have a drill and hole-saws you’ll have to borrow those or add to the shopping list and budget (Harbor Freight is a great place for tools, especially when using their coupons by Googling “harbor freight online coupons”).
Hydroponics systems for beginners
There are passive hydroponics systems that are dead simple—but more limited in what you can grow— and active hydroponics systems with pumps that move the water.
The two systems I narrowed down my choices to were Deep Water Culture (DWC) & the passive Kratky method. I went with DWC.
- Deep Water Culture is where you have a container with a pump in it for your nutrient solution and the bottoms of your plants are submerged in it
- If you’re looking to do bigger plants like tomatoes or cucumber a Flood and Drain system is a great option that’s pretty simple
- The Kratky Method of hydroponics is worth considering for a simple passive system for salad greens and herbs, it’s like DWC without a pump and as the nutrient solution level drops the plant roots follow the water down, exposing the roots to air, which helps with aeration (I’ve since started experimenting with this method for greens and herbs).
A great book with good instructions on building various hydroponics systems for beginners is DIY Hydroponic Gardens. I recommend reading the basics about hydroponics and different parts of the systems and then skip ahead to the section with the system you’re considering.
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